Monday, 5 December 2016

How to Become a Critic by Samuel Johnson.

How to Become a Critic, originally titled Minim the Critic, is an essay by Samuel Johnson, first published in The Idler on Saturday 9th June 1759. It begins,
Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at a very small expense. The power of invention has been conferred by nature upon few, and the labour of learning those sciences, which may by mere labour be obtained, is too great to be willingly endured; but every man can exert such judgment as he has upon the works of others; and he whom nature has made weak, and idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of a Critick.
I hope it will give comfort to great numbers who are passing through the world in obscurity, when I inform them how easily distinction may be obtained.
Johnson goes on to write that criticism is "a goddess easy of access and forward of advance", and the critic himself is essentially malignant despite often being malicious. From here he brings in the fictitious example of Dick Minim, an average and otherwise remarkable man who decides to become a critic, learning his art from the conversations at coffee shops and a few select books. From there he puts together his opinion based on the premise that "the chief business of art is to copy nature".
His opinion was, that Shakespeare, committing himself wholly to the impulse of nature, wanted that correctness which learning would have given him; and that Jonson, trusting to learning, did not sufficiently cast his eyes on nature. He blamed the stanzas of Spenser, and could not bear the hexameters of Sidney. Denham and Waller he held the first reformers of English numbers; and thought that if Waller could have obtained the strength of Denham, or Denham the sweetness of Waller, there had been nothing wanting to complete a poet. He often expressed his commiseration of Dryden’s poverty, and his indignation at the age which suffered him to write for bread; he repeated with rapture the first lines of All for Love, but wondered at the corruption of taste which could bear any thing so unnatural as rhyming tragedies.
Johnson writes further on Minim's opinions: Thomas Otway, Nicholas Rowe, William Congreve, and many others, all with their good points and bad, and all firmly held:
These assertions passed commonly uncontradicted; and if now and then an opponent started up, he was quickly repressed by the suffrages of the company, and Minim went away from every dispute with elation of heart and increase of confidence.
From obscurity to acknowledgement, the vain (but not ill-natured Minim) is respected, no longer lurking in coffee houses, he is invited to rehearsals and is generally celebrated by his friends: critics of the critic are usually ignored.

There is a second essay that followed the week after the first was published (16th June 1759; also titled Minim the Critic), and I wish I had time to say a few words on it - it's very much worth a read (it can be found here). For now, the first essay is an interesting one. Johnson shows "that all can be criticks if they will", showing the ease of how to become a celebrated critic, yet not entirely denouncing the art of criticism (Johnson himself was a critic among other things). Like other essays from The Idler it is brief, light, and entertaining, but perhaps not the most enlightening or exciting of his essays.

And that was my 49th Deal Me In title. Next week, the final short story: Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf.


  1. last week i read three essays on Johnson by R.W. Chapman, some sort of Oxford person... he talked a bit about J's sense of humor, which is evident in the segment quoted above... the Doctor is a relief in an overburdened world, with his surface stodginess and deep wisdom... Lives of the Poets is great, if you can find the time...

    1. I've got 'selected prefaces' of some of the Lives (it's in Johnson's Major Works from OUP) which I'm going to read soon. I love Johnson, and I did like this essay, just not a favuorite :)


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